West Bank to be snared in a net of highways

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The Independent Online
Israel is supposed to be handing over to the Palestinians. Not according to the planning laws. Sarah Helm reports The villagers of Deir Dibwan, on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, believe they know the future shape of "Palestine" better than Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Mr Arafat still appears to believe that the Israeli army will soon leave Arab towns and villages in the West Bank, ahead of Palestinian elections, as promised in the Oslo accords. And he still appears to believe that one day Jewish settlers will vanish from the occupied lands.

However, at talks with the PLO in Oslo at the weekend Israel tabled new proposals offering only limited redeployment from a handful of Arab population centres. And, as the villagers of Deir Dibwan can see, Israeli strategists are preparing to consolidateJewish settlements, not remove them..

New Israeli maps, passed to Palestinian planners, appear to confirm evidence that Israel's long-term strategy is to consolidate the settlements into blocks linked by highways. Ministers have spoken in recent days of the need to establish settlement blocks so the settlers can be "better protected". Far-flung settlements in the West Bank may be closed down and residents moved to one of six possible blocks. Palestinian planners say the blocks are being devised for easy annexation to Israel.

Settlers in isolated settlements are already preparing to resist any such move. The newly revealed plans also clarify the meaning of building restrictions which have been imposed on all Arab villages by Israeli planners in the past two years, preventing any substantial growth on Palestinian village lands.

Nizar Mughrabeh, an engineer working in Deir Dibwan, holds up a map of the area, recently acquired from the Israeli military planning authorities. To the south-west of the village, a new highway has been marked out, cutting across 100 acres of the village's land - which is to be confiscated - and dividing it from the neighbouring village of Beitin, which will also lose a slab of land.

The road, Mr Mughrabeh has been told by the Israelis, is to be built for Jewish settlers wishing to traverse the West Bank and by-pass the nearby Palestinian town of Ramallah. This is one stretch of "Route 60",which will run from north to south of the West Bank, including new by-passes round all the Arab towns on the way. The road will cost £220m.

Ever since the signing last September of the Oslo accord, which promised Palestinian self-rule in the the West Bank, piles of bricks and mortar have continue to go up in Israel's most prized Jewish settlements, despite the government's commitment to makeno changes while the final status of the lands is still under negotiation.

The map showing Israel's plans for a Ramallah by-pass was issued to Mr Mughrabeh when he objected to the Israeli authorities over the planning restrictions barring any new building outside a tiny proportion Deir Dibwan's lands. Already more than half of the village's land - once 20,000 acres - has been taken and declared a "closed military area" This summer the villagers demanded the right to build on the remaining land and were told they could not because of the new settler road. "We prote sted, but nobody listens," says Mr Mugharebeh.

The roads are to be 50 metres wide with building restricted on 150-metre strips either side. "I have no doubt these roads are intended to link up the settlements and to further prevent Palestinian building," says Usama Halabi, who has tried to challenge the road plans in the Israeli courts, with no success.

A report on the plans was presented last week to Mr Arafat by his advisers, but the PLO chairman has yet to respond. "The evidence from these maps makes clear that the Israelis' idea of the Oslo deal is to grant autonomy in Gaza and Jericho first - and last," says Khalil Tufakjee, chief planning adviser to the Palestinian negotiators.

"The purpose is clear: take over the land piece by piece," said Mohammed Hamid, mayor of the village of Beitin.

Some Israelis argue that the by-pass scheme shows commitment to Palestinian autonomy. It is because areas are to be given over to Palestinians, they say, that the settlers need new by-passes. But the road-building confirms first and foremost that the settlements are to stay.

The West Bank of the future is starting to look like a checkerboard of Arab enclaves and settlement blocks. "One thing is for sure: Israel is not going to spend one million on by-pass roads and then give the land back to the Palestinians," says Mr Tufakjee.

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